Feminist issues have come to be perceived as a major component of cultural studies, and the emergence of feminism in the 19th century in conjunction with the Victorian emphasis upon the family as the mainstay of the social fabric have made this period particularly fruitful for cultural analysis with a practical/political slant. Thus major contributions to an understanding of 19th-century culture have been made by researchers like Dorothy M. Stetson (A Woman's Issue: The Politics of Family Law Reform in England), Mary Lyndon Shanley (Feminism, Marriage, and the Law in Victorian England), and Joan Perkin (Women and Marriage in Nineteenth-Century England). As the titles of these works suggest, the primary focus has been on pressing issues like divorce, married women's property rights, child custody and wife abuse. What has tended to be overlooked, however, is a figure who also tended to be overlooked in Victorian society--but only until a general attempt at legal reform had the unintended effect of bringing her sharply into focus. The figure in question is "the sister" or more specifically the sister of a deceased wife--i.e., the "sister-in-law"--and what brought her to the foreground was a debate known as the "Deceased Wife's Sister" controversy.
The "Deceased Wife's Sister" controversy, although seemingly a minor skirmish, had far-ranging implications and was fought on the political scene almost annually for most of the Victorian period. At issue was the question of whether or not a man would be allowed to marry the sister of his deceased wife. The controversy began in 1835 when the British Parliament passed an act which attempted to clarify ambiguities in old marriage laws by prohibiting marriages between persons of certain degrees of affinity and consanguinity. Called "Lord Lyndhurst's Act" (what officially became section 2, act of the 5th and 6th William IV, chapter 54), the aspect of it which raised the most interest and concern was that which prohibited marriage between a man and his sister-in-law. Protesting this legislation, in 1842 reformist lawmakers drafted a document called the "Marriage to a Deceased Wife's Sister Bill" which would change the previous ruling to permit such marriages. The proposed bill itself, however, met with strong opposition, and it was not until 1907 that the controversy ended when the "Deceased Wife's Sister Bill" was finally passed.
Our 20th-century sensibilities may cause us to wonder why permitting marriage with a man's sister-in-law should cause so much debate for so long (65 years), but when we look closely at the relationships and issues involved, we should not be surprised. The "Deceased Wife's Sister" controversy was about the potential for triangular desire: two women as potential rivals for one man and one man desiring two women--who, moreover, are sisters. Jealousy, rivalry, sexual desire disrupting domestic tranquility--this is the stuff that juicy sensational stories are made of, stories of sororal rivalry that go back to biblical times. The controversy was about the effects of sexual desire on the purity of the English family, and debaters used the bill to argue about the ability of government to legislate morality, control individual behavior and regulate the family.
The controversy is important for modern feminists because a personal and significant relationship between women--i.e., biological sisterhood--became the recurring vehicle by which some of the public debate took place, thus providing us with an opportunity to examine cultural perceptions of this relationship. Additionally, the metaphor of sisterhood, which is based on the biological, was used then--as it also is now--to describe a desired, frequently idealized relationship among women. Conduct-book writer Sarah Stickney Ellis, for example, referred to her reader as "my sister" (12, 216), and Victorian women arguing for repeal of the Contagious Diseases Acts also referred to prostitutes as their "fallen sisters" (Walkowitz 6). …